Space Development Agency Opens; To Tackle Hypersonics From LEO

By Colin Clark

PENTAGON: Mike Griffin doesn’t want to admit it in so many words, but the Office of Secretary of Defense created the Space Development Agency because they don’t think the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center can really shake things up in space acquisition.

The senior Air Force leadership, which has publicly opposed creation of the SDA, argues there’s no need for it and point to the reorganization of SMC. The reorg, which departing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told me would “blow my socks off (it hasn’t yet),” is designed to speed satellite acquisition and generally make the famously stovepiped but highly competent organization more responsive.

I pressed Griffin this week on why the Pentagon needed a new space acquisition office since they already have SMC. I asked, based on his own comments about needing an office to help disrupt the space enterprise, if he was concerned SMC wasn’t responsive enough. If it was, why did they need another place that built satellites? He would not be drawn and repeated his broad point about disruption: “If you want disruptive change you probably need a disruptive organization.”

But Wilson and others in the Air Force have made it abundantly clear they don’t support creation of SDA, which was formally created March 12.

“I have some concerns about what is the mission of this entity (the Space Development Agency). Why do we think it would be better than what we currently do, and what exactly would it be focused on,” Wilson, whose service includes the Space and Missile Systems Center, told me in Orlando on Feb. 28 when I asked her how the proposed Space Development Agency would work with SMC.

Defense News ran a nice piece today about a Feb. 28 memo (the same date the secretary answered my question) in which Wilson says:

“Until the Space Development Agency has a uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations, the plan should not move forward.”

Asked by my colleague Aaron Mehta why the Air Force leadership opposed SDA, Griffin offered this:

“It is a general rule that large, existing organizations do not respond well or favorably toward new innovations. It would be an exception if they did embrace a new idea. So, I’ll just leave it at that.”

Bottom line: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Griffin, head of Pentagon research and development, think the Air Force can’t be nimble enough to do what they think needs doing. So they’ve created SDA.

I asked Griffin who would create requirements for SDA and he made it pretty clear it would steer clear of the standard military requirements process where services develop requirements which are then screened by the infamous Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS). Instead of spending 18 months wending through JCIDS, Griffin said they would be developed with input from combatant commanders, the four services “and other stakeholders.”

SDA will be small to start with — about 100 people — Griffin said, a mix of military and civilians, which is pretty standard for space. (I’m betting the Aerospace Corp. will be closely involved, but that’s just a hunch.)

What will SDA do for its maiden voyage? It will be build a network of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a mix of communications gear and sensors designed to detect hypersonic weapons.

Why? Because they have played a key role in destroying America’s communication and warning satellites during war-games, illustrating just what big, fat and rich targets those largely stationary satellites are in Geospatial orbit. Griffin, clearly having read our story about the recent RAND war-games, even quoted our headline about the US getting its ass handed to it.

The new SDA effort will owe much to a DARPA program known as Blackjack. We’ve got an excellent missile warning satellite known as Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS), with excellent staring sensors that can spot ballistic missile launches with a high degree of certainty, as well as a range of other targets that emit heat.

But hypersonic weapons emit much less heat than do ballistic missiles, Griffin noted. He said that, “today we cannot reliably see more than one hypersonic missile a a time.” Part of the reason is speed but the more fundamental challenge is that “they are 10 to 20 times less bright than ballistic missiles, so we need to be much closer to see them.”

One of the things I’ve always admired about Griffin is his ability to speak and think clearly. He did just that toward the end of the roundtable. “We need to be able to see offensive hypersonic missiles to blunt their spear,” he said. “The threat is already out there. I am taking about a response.”

This article was first published by Breaking Defense on March 14, 2019.